Naming and Faming
Sheena Adams, Accountability Lab’s Global Communications Director, profiles three integrity icons from the Global South who are paving the way for innovation in the public services.
There are many ways that governments can use the idea of positive deviance to shift norms and support reforms around the world. In India, the government celebrates its best civil servants during Civil Services Day while the Philippines has an annual Public Service Hero Award. The U.S. even has a brilliant ‘Funniest Fed’ competition to celebrate humor within government — which might sound frivolous but is exactly the kind of ‘naming and faming’ that can underpin a more approachable, effective government.
There are a variety of considerations for governments that want to institute these kinds of awards, all of which are related.
Firstly, the awards need to be seen as entirely independent. If they are organised by governments themselves and are seen as a driver of patronage and nepotism, that undermines the goals of the campaign, as has been the case in Nepal in the past.
Secondly, the process needs to be clear and transparent: if the winners are picked behind closed doors by some of the same officials involved in corruption, the credibility of the awards is immediately called into question.
Finally, sustainability and broader engagement over time comes from public participation — otherwise these awards remain esoteric. After all, public servants work for citizens and it is ordinary people who should play a role in judging their honesty and effectiveness.
In 2004, the non-profit Accountability Lab where I work, launched the Integrity Icon awards, a citizen-driven campaign that celebrates exemplary public servants whose work and integrity stands out among their peers by — yes, you guessed it — naming and faming them.
The awards extend from Philadelphia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan, to Ukraine, Morocco, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Liberia, and South Africa. In 2021, the campaign launched in Zimbabwe, Somaliland, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The campaign begins with an open nomination period before five winners are chosen through a strict vetting process. Short documentaries are produced about these exemplary civil servants and the films are shown all around the country, from small informal ‘video clubs’ to screenings at national government departments.
The value of Integrity Icon lies in the process; it creates purposeful conversations about what it means to be a public servant and spotlights ordinary people and the role they play in strengthening institutions. It is also a good way to encourage all of us to think about what is needed to build inclusive, accountable societies, and how to get there. Here, we profile three previous awardees who are paving the way for better governance in the Global South.
Inoka Himali Rathnaweera, 2020 Integrity Icon, Divisional Secretary, Four-Gravets, Galle
When COVID-19 took hold in the ancient port city of Galle in southern Sri Lanka in early 2020, Divisional Secretary Inoka Himali Rathnaweera knew she had to act quickly. Against a background of slow and mismanaged emergency response measures, she launched a mobile vegetable delivery service that brought essential groceries such as vegetables and fish, as well as medicines, to each area in the Four-Gravets region she oversees.
Rathnaweera explains: “We set up a mobile system where shop owners would take goods to different areas, announcing their items via loudspeakers. We also knew that prices had to be reasonable. We used social media to let communities know how the new system would work.”
It proved to be a lifeline to low-income communities. The mobile delivery system for grocery stores has since been rolled out all over the city, along with an online payment system and mobile ATMs that became indispensable during the city’s lockdowns. “Our ground level officers are implementing it everywhere. Even our President appreciated the system,” shares Rathnaweera.
Rathnaweera has also strengthened and supported the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Four-Gravets, ensuring it is equitable. She led the digitisation of the vaccine registration process, ensuring that no one was left behind. More than 12,500 people in six Grama Niladhari divisions were vaccinated during the first few weeks of the rollout.
The public service sector in Sri Lanka is muddied by political influence. Rathnaweera says that when politicians attempt to push back against public officials carrying out their duties lawfully, many remain quiet. But not her. “I’m never afraid to speak up to politicians, even if they ask for favours. If it’s the wrong thing, I refuse and explain why,” she smiles and says. “I always say that with poor people I work with my heart, but with rich people and politicians, I work with my brain.”
A public servant for the past 25 years, Rathnaweera says she was destined for a life in service. “Since I was young, I’ve always acted against corruption and unethical behaviour,” she says. “Even in school, I would quarrel with boys if they were doing bad things on behalf of their friends. Today, so many people criticise public servants so I want to do things differently.”
Amna Baig, 2020 Integrity Icon, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Pakistan
In Pakistan, Assistant Superintendent of Police Amna Baig is using the recognition that comes with being an Integrity Icon to win over the everyday patriarchy she often has to deal with.
“The Integrity Icon award came with a lot of recognition,” she reveals. “My film went viral and I got so many calls from various embassies saying how proud they were of what I was doing. I’m also getting so many questions and messages from other young women who are seeing the police service as a career option for the first time.”
She adds: “But the real measure of my success has been the men who have come up to tell me that they want their daughters to join the police force. Pakistan is a very patriarchal society so it is really my biggest achievement to see those kinds of changes in fathers.”
A key challenge to these changing perceptions for Baig is the low percentage of women police officers in Pakistan — pegged at just 1.6%. This makes them outliers in a situation where the unintended consequence is dismally low rates of women reporting crimes — often related to assault and abuse.
Baig grew up in Hunza, the beautiful mountainous region in northern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and China. As a young girl she thought of the police service as a ‘no-go area’ until a family trip to France turned her outlook on its head. She recalls: “We had lost something and our host told us to go report it to the police. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can just walk into a police station?’ And there were female officers there!”
She says: “In Pakistan, we’re used to fathers who want to get things done for their girls. That’s the whole culture in the country. We’re allowed to go to hospitals because we have women doctors, and we’re allowed to go to university because we have women lecturers. But we have so few female police officers that women just don’t go to police stations. They want to be able to talk with female officers and they don’t really believe we exist — and this is in a country where half the population is women.”
She reveals that she resolved to take the Civil Services Exam in order to become an officer — a steep goal that required her to be in the top 30% of candidates. Baig was drafted into the officer ranks of the Punjab Police. She set about introducing reforms almost immediately. Her first move was to establish a dedicated helpline and an all-women mobile police unit that visited women who were unable or unsure of visiting stations themselves, taking their statements, and investigating their cases. Baig then lobbied her managers to set up a women-focused service unit, equipped with private meeting rooms, washrooms, and a children’s play area — and staffed exclusively by female officers.
Last year, Baig was transferred to Islamabad, and one of the first calls she received was from the local Inspector-General of Police, asking her to replicate the unit there. “In the past month, we’ve dealt with more than 100 cases and the feedback we’re receiving is that 95% of complainants are satisfied with the service received,” she reports.
Sakhile Nkosi, 2019 Integrity Icon, Senior Audiologist, Mpumalanga
Although South Africa is considered a middle-income country, it also has a reputation as one of the most unequal societies in the world. This makes for an under-resourced and inefficient public service — tarnished by corruption and state capture — that is shadowed by a well-resourced and relatively well-run private sector.
Sakhile Nkosi is a young audiologist in a rural province called Mpumalanga. Interestingly, he is the only such specialist in a catchment area of hundreds of thousands of people — private hospitals included — and so his little office at the local public hospital is a crucial bridge across the public and private divide. He was crowned as an Integrity Icon winner in 2019 and has a sophisticated grasp of what it takes to navigate any bureaucratic incentives that emerge.
The visibility Nkosi has enjoyed since winning the award has positioned him well for leadership opportunities. These include being appointed to several hospital management committees as well as the Ethics Committee of the country’s national association of audiologists. Known for his ebullient personality and charming bedside manner, Nkosi is attuned to the many positive changes brought about by COVID-19’s impact.
“When I started here a few years ago, my aspirations weren’t discussed. Now my wellness comes up frequently in conversations with my supervisors,” he laughs. “I’ve also applied for research funding from the Mpumalanga Department of Health and my supervisor wrote a beautiful reference for me.”
Nkosi has used these gains strategically too, honing his abilities to make the system more effective for his patients and wisely lobbying his managers to grow his audiology department, which has become essential for the small town of Lydenburg. “In 2017, my annual budget was just R20,000 (US$ 1,403). I was able to buy five, maybe six, hearing aids that year. My current budget for the year is R250,000 (US$ 17,517). I’ve managed to procure 60 hearing aids plus lots of free accessories that I negotiated from my suppliers. I’m even customising them for my paediatric patients. If someone wants a Frozen or Mickey Mouse hearing aid, then that’s what they get!”
Strengthening relationships both inside and outside the hospital has become Nkosi’s strength. But he also has another ace up his scrubs in the form of an open, generous approach to public service. “I think my attitude makes a big difference to my success. I wake up and go to work joyfully every morning because I know my value,” he concludes. “I feel like a source of important answers to all my patients. Nobody else can answer their questions in the whole town. People call me the ‘doctor for ears’ and it’s my favourite title of all.”
Sheena Adams is the Global Director of Communications for Accountability Lab based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She works with communications officers in 11 network labs across the organisation’s public engagement campaigns and community outreach efforts.